Van Dyke Parks

by Dan MacIntosh

Van Dyke Parks is best known for writing lyrics with Brian Wilson on the Smile album, but that's just a sliver of his work. Yes, getting The Beach Boys to go from "She's cruisin' through the hamburger stand now" to "Sail through the sorrows of life's marauders" was a big deal, but more important are his profound and exceptional contributions as an arranger, producer and musician on his solo work and also on albums by a spectrum of artists that includes U2, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright, Sheryl Crow and Joanna Newsom. His name on the credits indicates integrity and care - you don't hire VDP for commercial appeal, but because you want to create something special.

We've seen Parks described in major publications as both an oddball and a genius. He has said that his motivation is not fame or fortune, but the honor of music. These days, he's more relevant than ever, still pushing to see what a song can do. His latest project is a series of 7" singles with artwork commissioned to accompany each song printed on the sleeve. To hear it, you'll need a record player and an open mind.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You wear so many different hats: composer, performer, instrumentalist, arranger, producer, and lyricist. What do you think is your greatest strength as an artist?

Some of Van Dyke Parks' Arrangements
U2 - Rattle and Hum
Silverchair - Diorama, Young Modern
Rufus Wainwright - Want, Want Too
Ry Cooder - Ry Cooder
Carly Simon - Another Passenger
Joanna Newsom - Ys
Sesame Street - Follow That Bird
T-Bone Burnett - Talking Animals
Stan Ridgway - Mosquitos
Divinyls - Divinyls
Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah
Fiona Apple - Tidal
Van Dyke Parks: Well, to me, the tensile strength and the very definition of an artist is something that I would place at the top of a vertical hierarchy. To be an artist is to suffer and to lead a life without shelter. It takes a great amount of Derring-do, self reinvention, imagination, familial loyalty, sacrifice, economic uncertainty, and the right to be wrong, the right to fail in order to achieve something of noticeable value. So I would say of all those categories the way that I would like to view myself is as an artist. And that is in my mere survival as a musician for these last - just a moment here, let me do the mathematics - 58 years I have supported myself by being a musician.

Songfacts: Well, you certainly lived up to your definition as an artist.

Parks: (laughing) That's very, very generous of you. As I look back on my deeds, many of which seem absolutely indelible given the fact that they migrated from analog to digital, from royalties to no royalties in this age of piracy - it amazes me how durable these works have been. And yet it also gives me feelings of unease because I look back on some of these things, and the first thing that occurs to me is whatever was I thinking? And of course I would like to retract some of my statements and start all over, and be somebody who's epic, to be a muralist rather than a miniaturist. But so be it. I still think my best work is ahead of me. I proceed every day with that mantra. And I'm content at this age - I'm 68 - I'm content with my effort just knowing that I've done my best and will continue to.

Songfacts: A lot of us that are music fans and listeners don't really understand what an arranger does, how an arranger looks at music. Do you hear a finished product in your mind when you hear somebody's song?

Parks: No. When I hear somebody's song, if I've been asked to arrange, I hear an unfinished product. I hear an unfinished product that, if I take on the job, it's because I've decided that it needs to be defended, and I do everything I can to defend that work. That takes a decision, whether or not to be heard or simply to be felt in the arranging. I try to frame the work. And the reason that I do that is to give it greater power of enunciation so that it will be noticed. So, to me, it would be fair to say that I try to frame the work and not, with the first order of business being invasive surgery. I try to stay out of the way. If I hear a note that is incorrect, for example, I have to make a decision about whether to hide that note, support it in its invalidity, somehow to try to validate decisions that seem at first blush poor decisions. Now, that might be in a vocal, it might be in the instrumental, in the construct of the piece itself. But what I'm trying to do is preserve the mathematics of the piece. All of which, we're talking about music here, Zappa once said, like dancing about architecture. But what I try to do is give the piece power. If I feel that it has something at the core that speaks to me in a humanistic way. If the song conveys a matter of heart that is worth defending, I'll pursue it with all my heart. I spend about a week on average, promising, no less, an arrangement, so that I can re-think myself. Every morning I wake up and look at the labor of the day before. I'm talking about all day and into the night. And I look at the labor before, and often I will just simply toss out, perhaps, 3 or 4 hours of work if I don't feel it's up to snuff.

But I think that arranging is basically a job of doing what's there and bringing proportion to it, too, to making what's there heard. So I start my process by listening. I'm all ears. I pay more attention to what is already there than I think anybody that I know of in the arranging field. I do that because I don't think that the essential job of arranging is what we should call a creative process. Arranging is a reactive process. And I don't think that that means it's any less demanding. It takes a lot to respond, to just do nothing and listen and see what's there, and then support it. So naturally, I write down every note that I hear, even if it's just simply guitar, vocal, done on a garage group laptop. I do what's there. And then I decide how I want to illustrate that song.

The Van Dyke Parks Orchestra
This is the orchestra Parks used on the Inara George album An Invitation.

3 Violins
2 Violas
Bass Clarinet
English Horn
French Horn
I've found in a process of arranging over the years that the irreducible minimum for me is a chamber group. It is getting some strings together that's 7-13, because I have 3 violin voices, 2 viola voices, 1 cello voice, and 1 bass. Those are a lot of lines. And that is so that I can get sustaining forces, rhythmic forces - and oh, by the way, to that, if a budget allows, I will put on 5 woodwinds and 1 horn. That's what I've found is the ideal for an arrangement, because it's an orchestra that's big enough to be small, to be transparent. You notice how a string quartet - let's look at something like "Eleanor Rigby" or "Lady Jane" by the Stones, if you want to go back. The smaller the string ensemble, the more in-the-face they become. You get to a point where you reach that transparency, where the strings are not in the face. So in the cases, for example, of Joanna Newsom, Rufus Wainwright, Inara George [daughter of Lowell George of Little Feat, who Parks also worked with], of late, those, I'd say, exactly the same orchestra. Exactly the same numbers. It's almost like I found a way to arrange that I really enjoy.

Songfacts: So that's kind of your comfort zone, then?

Parks: Well, that's the tool I know how to use well.

Songfacts: It feels comfortable in your hands.

Parks: Yeah. But at the same time, just as I enjoy immensely going and doing an orchestral - if I find a famous rock and roll group with deep pockets who can, without great personal sacrifice, hire a full orchestra, I'd be delighted to go to Prague or London or here in Hollywood and spend a lot of money on the third trombone. That's all very fine. But I try to keep an economical approach to recorded music so that artists end up making some money at the end of the day.

Songfacts: I've been curious as to why you found such a great working relationship with Brian Wilson. Is it your personalities that click, or are you on a similar wavelength that's caused you to be so good together?

Parks: I have no idea what wavelength Brian Wilson is on. When I worked with him and collaborated with him, that was 40 years ago.

Songfacts: But you worked with him on the Orange Crate project, correct?

Parks: Yes, I worked independent of him, if you notice in the record.

Van Dyke worked with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys album Smile. The single "Heroes And Villains," with lyrics by Parks, came out of those sessions, but the album wasn't released until 2004, when Wilson finally finished it. It wasn't until 1995 that Wilson and Parks once again worked together, this time on the album Orange Crate Art, which is officially credited to Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, but all of the new songs were written by Parks.
Songfacts: Oh, I see.

Parks: Yeah. I provided a record so that Brian - my main regard, knowing that that would be my last studio album at Warner Brothers in all probability, because they had a changing of the guard. They didn't want guys my age around people who might know what a contract would suggest. They wanted people that didn't know what contracts suggest. They got the young Turks in there then, and scraped off the residue of the Warner Brothers artists that had brought them so much public good will. But it was time for me to use that opportunity before I exited Warner Brothers to show Brian Wilson some gratitude for what he had done, his initial gesture, and bringing me into that Smile project. And I wanted to remind him that he had an absolute ability to go back into a studio and to be a functioning musician. And that's what Orange Crate Art did, his Rubicon, the river that he had to cross. And I did that, what I felt was turnabout of a mutual regard.

A Charles Ray sculpture of VDP
You see, I do believe you started talking about what I hear - when I get an arrangement, if I hear something. What I hear is "ka-ching." I hear the sound of the budget. I hear the quantitative demands. How much time can we spend in the studio with how many musicians and get this done? What is it going to take to lug this ball past the goal post? And it sounds quite unaesthetic or very ho-hum. But in fact, that's what it's all about. It's about the numbers of people that can engage. And that can be from a trio to quite a large number of musicians.

The job of arranging is the job of quantifying. It's a job of doing everything you can with just enough to do it. And it sounds very boring, doesn't it? (laughing)

Songfacts: When you say it, Van Dyke, it isn't.

Parks: But it takes a lot of struggling to do that, to get to that point, you know. Can we afford a harp? Well, yes. Can we afford the harp cartage? No. Dammit. You know, stuff like that happens in the course of arranging.

But I do believe, although I made a distinction between creative and reactive participation, I do believe that arranging is, I'm sorry to say, a dying part of our industry. And that is because of pirating and so forth. People are spending less and less money, bean counters are looking more and more for self-contained monastic talent, that is people with a synthesizer in a little closet in their apartment who can deliver some goods, whether they are synthetic or a derivative of Bob Dylan's early solo works. They want to save money. They don't want arrangers around to complicate their picture of profit.

But arranging has been a beautiful aspect of recording for so long, I believe a lot of people come to me because they can't find anybody else. This is what I do when I'm not insisting on myself. This day, actually, is of exception, because for the next couple of weeks I'm going to finish a series of six summer singles. That means 12 different compositions. Each of them arranged with musicians, each of them packaged by artists of great renown. Each of them a 45 rpm hi-fi stereo virgin vinyl single. Each of them something you can hold, you can smell, you can see, you can possess. Each of them, of course, is available on a digital download, too, for those that are stuck in that digital ditch. But they sound better, they look better, they are who I am, a retro character, still alive, having been pushed forward by the acceptance of another generation who know that I do put my heart in my work, I do think that arranging has a highly contributive job in the way a song will sound to the casual observer.

But for anyone who's really interested in what I'm doing and that work I bragged about, that is my best work, the work that lays ahead, this day, for example. It's a name for a shop my wife had in Paris.

I waited long enough. I waited about 15 years to get an offer from a record company. But record companies aren't so interested in veterans. Record companies are more interested in brunettes. And I suffered that disregard 15 years waiting to get a return call, and I finally decided to put out my own records. It reminds me of a joke my agent told me. He said there are four ages to an artist. I said what are they? He said, "Who is Van Dyke Parks?" "Get me Van Dyke Parks." "Get me a young Van Dyke Parks." "Who is Van Dyke Parks?" I think he hit it on the head right there.

But I have never written music to fish for flattery or condemnation. I don't pay attention to what people think of me. I pay attention to the old fella I see in the mirror in the morning who looks like my dad on a bad day.

July 29, 2011
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Comments: 6

  • Peter from North CarolinaVan Dyke's music has been such a deep and abiding pleasure in my life. Orange Crate Art is a masterpiece. It is a rich evocation of childhood, a California pastoral. The melodies and chords are as rich and lovely as anything in Brian Wilson's canon. And I loved VDP's lyrics for Brian's That Lucky Old Sun, a musical love letter to LA. Thank you Van Dyke, thank you.
  • Joebob from CaliSpringsteen calls him a good friend and gives him his highest respect. Nuff said.
  • Vic from AlabamaI agree with all of you.
  • Charles from Tampa, FlAt age 12, "Song Cycle' opened my ears' mind. It released me to be able to connect my musical curiosities, abilities,and sensibilities with whatever was going on in my life. He was the seed that provided me musical freedom.
    -Countless times that freedom has been my inspiration and my salvation.
  • Dan from Norwalk, CaChris, you are so totally right.
  • Chris from CaliforniaThe world needs more VDPs. What a blessing.
see more comments

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